‘He Said, She Said’ – do you need these?

In a nutshell – yes, you do. But in moderation.

Some approaches to teaching creative writing suggest that you should avoid using the word ‘said’ as much as possible. You should use words like ‘exclaimed,’ ‘mentioned,’ ‘shouted,’ ‘yelled.’ Unfortunately, this is particularly drummed into us in school when we first start to learn about creative writing. We have these bad habits from the start.

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Your ice-cream is going to melt while you wait for all the ‘He says, she says’ to finish.

Similar to the overuse of adverbs, the unnecessary use of words like ‘exclaimed,’ ‘mentioned,’ et al, clutter up your writing big time. Sticking in one of these overly descriptive ways of speaking every now and then – fine. Every other sentence, or indeed every sentence, and look at what happens:

‘I can’t find the ice cream,’ she hollered.
‘I don’t know where it is,’ he exclaimed.
‘It was on top of the shelf,’ she thundered.
‘Well, it’s melted then,’ he explained.

Starting to miss ‘said?’ Me too.

But that’s not to say replacing all these words with ‘said’ is a good idea either. As mentioned earlier, you need ‘said’ in moderation. Replacing all the above with just ‘said’ appears repetitive and dull:

‘I can’t find the ice cream,’ she said.
‘I don’t know where it is,’ he said.
‘It was on top of the shelf,’ she said.
‘Well, it’s melted then,’ he said.

So, try leaving the s-word out a couple of times. There is no need to keep using it once you’ve established who is speaking. So long as the stretch of dialogue is not too long and your characters are developed enough that their different styles of speaking are obvious, then you can get away with dropping the s-word.

‘I can’t find the ice cream,’ she said.
‘I don’t know where it is,’ he said.
‘It was on top of the shelf…’
‘Well, it’s melted then.’

Of course, when it comes to a question, ‘asked’ and ‘replied’ are acceptable. But don’t do this constantly:

Where’s the ice cream?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied.
‘It was on top of the shelf…’
‘Well, it’s melted then.’
‘How could it melt?’ she asked.
‘Because ice cream goes in the freezer,’ he replied.

See how the dialogue would still be clear without the second set of ‘asked’ and ‘replied?’
‘Said’ is your friend. The more descriptive words, whilst they may seem like good alternatives, appear overdone when they’re all lumped in together.

The final tip is not to focus too much on this in the first place. The most important thing here is your dialogue; that requires the majority of your attention. If it is well crafted enough, how your characters are saying what is being said will come across anyway. Good dialogue should speak for itself, rendering the more descriptive words completely superfluous.